Q & A with Costume Designer Sandy Powell

“The Young Victoria’s” costume designer Sandy Powell

“The Young Victoria’s” costume designer Sandy Powell

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to costume designer Sandy Powell, an Oscar nominee for Best Costume Design and this year’s BAFTA winner in that category for Jean-Marc Vallee’s “The Young Victoria”, released domestically through Apparition.

The film’s three Oscar nominations include Best Costume Design, Best Makeup (John Henry Gordon and Jenny Shircore) and Best Art Direction (Patrice Vermette, art director; Maggie Gray, set decorator). It was honored with BAFTA wins for Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hair (Jenny Shircore). On the heels of her BAFTA victory, Powell won the Costume Designers Guild Award for best period film costume design and was also given the guild’s Lacoste Career Achievement in Film award.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and written by Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”), “The Young Victoria” was produced by Graham King, Martin Scorsese, Tim Headington and Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York. Starring are Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent., Thomas Kretschmann, Mark Strong, Jesper Christensen and Harriet Walter.

Sandy Powell has been nominated eight times for the Oscar for Best Costume Design and has won twice — in 1999 for “Shakespeare in Love” and in 2007 for “The Aviator”. Her other nominations include “The Young Victoria” (2010), “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (2006), “Gangs of New York” (2003), Velvet Goldmine” (1999), “The Wings of the Dove” (1998) and “Orlando” (1994).

The Story (Official Synopsis - spoiler alert): In 1837 Victoria (Emily Blunt) is 17 and the object of a royal power struggle. Her uncle, King William (Jim Broadbent), is dying and Victoria is in line for the throne. Everyone is vying to win her favor. However Victoria is kept from the court by her overbearing mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her ambitious advisor, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). Victoria hates them both. Her only friend is her doting governess, Lehzen (Jeanette Hain), but she is smothering and over-protective.

Victoria’s handsome cousin, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), is invited to visit by her mother. He’s also the nephew of her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann). It’s obvious that Albert has been coached to win her hand. At first she’s annoyed as she has no intention of being married. She never wants to be controlled again. However Albert is also tired of being manipulated by his relatives. Victoria and Albert talk openly and sincerely and become friends. When he returns home she grants him permission to write to her. Leopold is delighted and pushes Albert to woo her. Albert refuses because he knows she’s not ready and he won’t return to London until she invites him. Leopold reluctantly waits.

Costume sketches from “The Young Victoria”

Costume sketches from “The Young Victoria”

Meanwhile King William dies and Victoria, who is now 18, is crowned Queen of England. Victoria’s first decree is to banish her mother and Conroy to a remote palace apartment. She embraces Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), the charming Prime Minister, as her sole advisor. They become inseparable and although his motives are somewhat self serving, he truly cares for her and wants her to succeed. Albert returns to London for the Coronation and the friendship between Victoria and Albert deepens. Although they spend happy hours together, it is obvious that Victoria is under Melbourne’s spell. Albert eventually returns to Germany.

The public loves their new Queen. She’s cheered as she rides through the streets but this honeymoon with the public comes to a sudden end. Melbourne’s party is defeated in the elections and his rival, Sir Robert Peel (Michael Maloney), demands that Victoria replace her ladies in waiting, who are all supporters of Lord Melbourne, with the wives of his own allies. Victoria refuses. Peel resigns and the backlash is furious. The newspapers declare that Victoria is opposing the public’s will. They are outraged.

It is only now that Victoria understands how much she needs Albert’s support. Against Melbourne’s wishes, she summons the young Prince back to England. Albert is determined not to be kept waiting in the wings any longer. Seeing his new resolution and struck by how handsome and sincere he is, Victoria invites him to marry her.

The spectacle of the royal wedding wins over the public. The handsome young Prince and Queen are cheered and all seems well in the Royal household. However tensions between Albert and Victoria start to emerge. She wants an obedient friend and lover, not a controlling husband. But he, reasonably enough, wants to be her partner and equal and to be involved in her political decisions. Victoria is furious — she is the Queen and she will manage her own business! Albert is hurt and has little to do in his new role as Prince Consort. Eventually, with encouragement from the Dowager Queen Adelaide (Harriet Walter) she allows him to re-organize the palace staff. He does a great job and the household is more efficient than it’s been in centuries.

Victoria becomes pregnant. Life should be perfect, but they argue when she sees Albert talking with politicians at a party. She’s incensed that he is taking the lead without her permission. Later when they are riding through the streets a crazed man tries to shoot Victoria. Albert throws her to the carriage floor and is wounded trying to protect her.

Shocked by the danger and amazed by the strength of his love, Victoria realizes what a selfish woman she’s become. She begs Albert’s forgiveness as he insists that all he’s ever wanted was what was best for her. Trusting him completely, she’s now ready to accept his help. Together they banish Lehzen, who could not accept Albert’s place in the family, and her mother’s treacherous advisor, Conroy, who was still wielding influence. In a symbolic move, Victoria moves Albert’s desk next to hers and for the rest of his life they rule together.

Q: When we see a film like “The Young Victoria” everything looks exactly the way it should be, but it must be difficult to figure out what to do. Tell us how you approached designing the costumes for the film. When did you become involved?
A: This is three years ago now (that) I read the script.
Q: And as you read a screenplay what are you seeing?
A: Well, first of all you know straightaway whether it’s a well written script or not. That matters to me actually. If it’s not, then I’m not particularly interested in it even if it might have good opportunities for costumes. If it’s not a very well written script, chances are it’s not going to be a very good film. This script was a well written script. It was nice to read something that had good dialogue and was obviously written by somebody who knew his history.
Q: As you read, are you envisioning costumes that you could design?
A: Not the first read — unless it’s something that you’re very, very familiar with or a period that you already know inside out. The first reading is just (for) the story or you might get an instinctive feeling about things, but not anything specific.
Q: When you read “The Young Victoria” did you already know a lot about its story?
A: I didn’t know anything. I mean, like most people your image is that Victoria was a mad old lady in black. I really knew very little. I did know that she was married to Albert, obviously, and I did know that (they had) had a happy marriage. But I knew very little about that part of history.
Costume sketches from “The Young Victoria”

Costume sketches from “The Young Victoria”

Q: What happens after you read and like a screenplay?
A: Then you research it, basically, from written material, painted material, anything. Research is done in the same way usually every time. You look at visual references. In this case there’s a lot of royal portraiture and a lot of written reference. Diaries are very specific. And (you visit) museums and galleries and all that sort of stuff.
Q: I should think that with Victoria you probably had a wealth of material to go through.
A: Yes. And then there’s information that circulates within the production. The art department will have an awful lot of research and reference that I don’t have. It all gets circulated so we’re all looking at the same material.
Q: In the case of Queen Victoria, there must have been reference materials with details about things like her Coronation dress and her wedding gown. Was there also a lot of information about the sort of things she might have worn on just an ordinary day?
A: Not really. No. I mean, things like the Coronation robe and the wedding dress, I saw both of those, actually, at Kensington Palace. We went to the archive and were actually shown them. The actual wedding dress still exists and the black dress she wears when the King dies and she receives the Privy Council. That still exists and (so does) the Coronation robe.
Q: Tell us about the process of how you work.
A: It sort of starts off the same way on every job, which is you read the script, do the research and, hopefully, you have some access. Quite often you don’t have access. But the first thing is the best thing — the research. Making a visual reference. I compile scrapbooks of visual images. I surround myself with the visual references. The next thing I do is shop for fabrics and materials that are suitable — before even designing a costume.
Q: With a period piece like this, I’m thinking that fabrics we have today might not have existed then.
A: Exactly. They don’t. Obviously, they’re modern fabrics. The fabrics that were produced back then are nothing like the fabrics we can produce now in (terms of) the fineness back then. The fabrics were of much better quality then than they are now — although we have different things now. We have, maybe, harder wearing things now, synthetic things, but the techniques are completely different.
Q: Do you need to be true to the period in terms of the fabrics?
A: You try to, but you can’t obviously. If a dress is made of velvet from 1837 it’s not going to be anything like the same fabric that we can find now, which means that the dress isn’t really going to look the same. It’s going to be a version of (what it was). That’s all we can do.
Q: You use some wonderful colors in “The Young Victoria’s” costumes. There’s a great blue gown and a terrific green dress that Emily Blunt wears.
A: I think she’s wearing every color actually, she has so many dresses. They’re strong colors, yes.
Q: Was that your own imagination at work?
A: It kind of was, yes. I mean all of the dresses that we designed aren’t copies of hers, at all. The only one that’s a sort of replica is the black mourning dress (and) the wedding dress, the Coronation robe. The rest are all invented.
Costume sketches from “The Young Victoria”

Costume sketches from “The Young Victoria”

Q: In designing costumes how important is it to know who is going to play the role?
A: It’s essential. If you design a costume for a character without knowing the actor, you might have an idea in your head of what the character is or what shape they are or what physicality they are. You design something and the actor cast could be physically totally different. He might be a short person and you might be designing for a tall, slender person. Or it could be somebody with a fuller figure and you’ve designed for a skinny figure. You have to know the actor before you design the costume. And, also, that affects the color and the proportion, everything really.
Q: I think I read somewhere that Victoria, herself, was actually very tiny.
A: Yes, she was under 4 foot 9. Child size. Really tiny.
Q: Obviously, Emily is not that tiny.
A: She’s very slender, but no, she’s sort of an average woman’s height for now, actually.
Q: Did that make any difference in your work?
A: Well, yes and no. I mean, obviously, she wasn’t going to look tiny. But then again, everybody else is taller. I suspect that the actors around her are taller than people would have been then. But, no, she didn’t come off as diminutive as Victoria would have been.
Q: Now we’ve only been talking about the costumes for Victoria, but you also, of course, did the costumes for everyone else in the film. With Albert, for instance, do we know what he would have been wearing at the time?
A: Yes. I’d say in terms of shape and cut it’s pretty accurate because you do have original things that you can look at. But, again, the quality of the fabrics are different. They’re not as fine as they would have been then.
Q: Did you have enough time to do all this?
A: Well, you never have enough time. We obviously did get by. You usually never have enough money or enough time. On the whole, actually, we were lucky we did have most of the actors (cast for the roles). The only actor we didn’t have was Paul Bettany (as Lord Melbourne). He was cast, but didn’t arrive until the day before he was on. He was wearing a diplomatic, which is a heavily embroidered coat, and we had one. It’s not the kind of thing that we could have in pieces lying around waiting to make up. We had one that actually existed already that we hoped would fit. That really was the only thing we did have (in terms of) very last minute things trying to get fit. I don’t think it fit as well as it could have, but no one else is going to know that.
Q: When we see Jim Broadbent as King William in the film’s banquet scene he’s wearing this great colorful formal sash. Is that the way the King would have dressed?
A: Yes. All the regalia was correct. We had to do that correctly because we had an historical advisor on board, who actually was very specific about all of that. We had somebody watching over us making sure that was all correct.
Q: How closely do you usually work with a film’s director?
A: It varies. More and more often we have less and less time to prep and the director is off doing a thousand things a director has to do so you don’t get to see them a huge amount or as much as would be good. The director tells you what he wants and he tells you specific things he might need and then after that you get on to it. I generally will show the director fitting photographs or the completed photograph of an actor’s completed costume before he gets to see it on set on the day.
Q: And did everything go smoothly?
A: Yes, it did, actually. It was a very happy shoot.
Q: Any good stories?
A: (laughing) It was three years ago! Not that I can remember. I spent very little time on set. I’ll be on set whenever new costumes get established or (for) a new big scene, but generally there’s always too much to be doing away from the set so I never get to hear all the on set stories.
Q: What about costumes that are supposed to look like people have actually worn them for a while?
A: That is actually a specialist’s job and there is somebody employed in my department who does that — makes costumes look like they’ve been worn for a while. I think it’s very difficult to do that job and make it look believable and make it look naturalistic and like somebody has been wearing it for a while. That’s the challenge.
Q: Do you ever run into an actor who doesn’t like a costume or thinks it should be different?
A: Yes, but I don’t think that happened on this picture. I mean, Emily had so many costumes that there obviously were some she preferred to others. But it didn’t create a problem. I mean, you always have your favorite outfit, don’t you? So there were some that she liked more than others. She had two corsets. One she felt was more comfortable than the other, but nothing that was prohibitive in her performance. It didn’t create any drama.
Q: There seemed to be so many costumes in the film. Were there more costumes here than in the average movie?
A: Again, that depends on the time scan of the movie. This covered not that many years, actually — two or three years. If you’re covering two or three years and you’re also covering a Queen, I mean, really and truly, if you were doing it completely realistically she’d have had probably three or four times more costumes than she had. She would have changed four or five times during the day. We couldn’t possibly do that. It would be too ridiculous to see somebody changing their clothes that many times in a film. So simply because of the kind of people that they were, then yes there were a lot of costumes. On different occasions you have to wear different (costumes) — like court dress is different from regular evening dress, which is different from the dress you wear to breakfast, which is different from the dress you wear to lunch.
Q: You’ve done so many different kinds of movies over the years. “Shutter Island”, your most recent film in theaters, is completely different from “The Young Victoria”. Do you have a favorite type of film — say contemporary versus period piece?
A: On the whole, I prefer doing something not contemporary. If you’re doing a period film or stylized film you get to design and make the costumes whereas contemporary films generally involve shopping. You shop for the clothing, which equally can be fun and if it’s a great story and a great script that can be fun and challenging, as well. But on the whole I prefer to design.
Q: You’ve just won the BAFTA and this is your eighth Oscar nomination. Is it still exciting to be a nominee?
A: Yes, it is, actually. Of course it is. You know, you never expect this.
Q: Really?
A: No.
Q: But we all expected you to be nominated.
A: (laughs) Well I didn’t because when this film came out in the U.K. it didn’t have the same acclaim as it has had in the States. It’s been much greater appreciated here than it was there.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: They’re bored of it in Britain. They’re bored of films about royal people.